Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

Food truck operators are reeling this week after the city rolled out a new regulation. Starting in May, food truck businesses with multiple trucks, such as Red Hook Lobster PoundDC Slices, and Captain Cookie & The Milkman, will only be able to enter one truck into the lottery system run by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

The operators say they weren’t given proper notice or any opportunity to comment on the rule that will significantly impact their businesses. 

The lottery controls which food trucks get permission to park and sell food in premium locations like Farragut Square and Franklin Square. Food trucks pay $25 a month to enter the lottery and an additional $150 if they choose to use the locations they are assigned. The new rule, which DCRA calls a pilot program, responds to some food truck operators who have been abusing the lottery system and the fact that there are too few spaces for the District’s 450 permitted trucks. 

The DMV Food Truck Association notified its members by e-mail, calling the move a “misguided” and “possibly illegal” attempt by DCRA to change the lottery eligibility rules.

“Under the city’s administrative procedure act, anytime an agency goes to change a regulation they can’t change it in the middle of the night,” says Doug Povich of Red Hook Lobster Pound. “There’s a process they have to undertake. They ignored all of that and are relying on this section of rules that says they can make changes to the format of the lottery program to improve efficiency.” 

Kirk Francis of Captain Cookie went to submit his lottery entries for May on April 1 and only saw one eligible truck instead of the three that he has entered for several years. “After contacting DCRA, we received no information other than the statement saying, ‘We changed the rules.’ City Paper obtained a copy of the e-mail with this statement from employee India Blocker-Ford. Francis says when he called, Blocker-Ford hung up on him. 

A DCRA spokesperson counters, saying they informed the food truck association in December at a regular meeting of a food truck working group that seeks to tackle industry issues. “The group meets monthly to identify challenges and find solutions that could impact vendors, local businesses and others,” Tim Wilson says. He says the food truck association was notified of the pilot initiative and its purpose again in March.

Food trucks cry foul. “DMVFTA and DCRA have been meeting and working together on many other food truck-related issues for the past months, and any changes to the lottery system were never brought up and discussed,” says DMVFTA managing director Andie Himmelrich.

“Naturally we were surprised when we heard about the change and that it was taking effect immediately without any discussion to come up with a solution that benefits everyone. This new policy change will significantly cripple the locally owned small business owners that the city is trying to attract.” 

Both sides agree there’s a problem that needs solving. Some food truck operators have been entering what DC Slices owner Zack Graybill calls “ghost trucks” into the lottery. “There are jokes and some seriousness going around about there being some food truck mafias where they have eight food trucks, but they only work two or four at a time,” he says. “They’re just using these trucks to get more spots in the lottery.”

“They’ve got these bad actors out there that are gaming the lottery system by having trucks that exist on paper,” Povich adds. “They go to DCRA and say, ‘I’ve got these eight spaces, I want to trade from this truck to this truck.’ By the end of the day, they end up with five spaces each for two operational trucks. They get a full slate of prime locations when everyone else is struggling with one or two.”

DCRA confirms this is the basis for the policy change. “Under the current policy, vendors are allowed to enter multiple trucks into the lottery system,” Wilson says. “In some instances, as many as eight food trucks enter the lottery under one license. The purpose of this pilot initiative is to promote fairness among vendors by creating equal access to the more desirable lottery locations based on vendor feedback. This new initiative would ensure that each licensee has one entry into the lottery regardless of the number of food trucks under the license.”

The food trucks feel that punishing all operators for the actions of a few bad actors isn’t fair. Graybill will have to take trucks off the street. “We’ll have to figure out what to do,” he says. “We don’t have the logistical capability to go to other places in the city and make it work. It becomes incredibly risky.” 

“To suddenly be cut out of the most profitable vending locations is a huge financial blow that will likely mean mass layoffs of staff that would normally be working on our trucks, in addition to potential bankruptcy for businesses that have been losing money in order to be ready and fully staffed for busy season,” Francis says. “This regulation change says that you can only have one truck in D.C.’s busiest areas.” He likens it to telling José Andrés he can only have one restaurant downtown. The chef has Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya, China Chilcano, minibar, and barmini

“Why does DCRA get to decide that food truck owners can only own one truck?” Francis continues. “This sends a chilling message to all D.C. businesses that DCRA may choose to radically change their regulations at any time, with zero transparency and no warning.”

To solve the problem of oversaturation, Povich proposes that the city focus on creating more mobile vending locations, citing Georgetown and the Capitol South Metro station as two examples.

Povich also suggests the city focus on enforcement, which of course would require more city resources. “If they went and enforced the regulations and said every truck has to have a VIN number on it and it has to match the license plate, you wouldn’t have these ghost trucks,” he says. “If they don’t match, they can issue a ticket that comes with a $2,000 fine. That would clean it up real quick.”

Povich didn’t get much sleep last night. He stayed up penning a letter to DCRA that he hopes will get the agency to rethink the pilot program before the busy season kicks off.

“The timing of this policy comes after a long winter,” Graybill adds. “So just as business should be picking up, they’re cutting us off at the knees.”